The Language Perfectionist: Fragmentation Grenades

Our grade-school teachers instructed us to write complete sentences – “complete” meaning that every sentence is supposed to contain a subject and a predicate. They admonished us to avoid incomplete sentences or “sentence fragments,” such as:

  • Jim showed her the painting he had just completed. Watched her reaction.
  • I won’t see that film. Unless my favorite actor is in it.

In general, it makes sense to observe the complete-sentence rule. But good writers sometimes use sentence fragments deliberately for specific purposes, such as variety, emphasis, irony, and humor. Here’s an effective use of the technique by Judith Kitchen, an essayist and poet:

“Today I woke up half a century old. I am not ready. Too much yet to do. Too much everyday living. Too much left unsaid, unimagined.”

In his rule-challenging usage guide Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins, Theodore M. Bernstein offered some excellent advice:

“Experienced writers… often use fragmentary sentences for rhetorical effect. … Such writers know what they are doing, they do it deliberately rather than accidentally and they do not mislead the reader into expecting a complete sentence. … [Sentence fragments] must be used purposefully. … As is true of any other writing device, they must not be overused, they must not become a mannerism.”

To paraphrase the TV announcers: Try this at home only if you’re a pro!

[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book forthcoming from AWAI, that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into critiquing, consulting, training, and speaking.]

Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant for more than 30 years. He may be best known for his headline “Speak Spanish [French, German, etc.] Like a Diplomat!” This familiar series of ads sold spectacular numbers of recorded foreign language lessons for Audio-Forum, generating revenues that total in the tens of millions of dollars. In the process, the ad achieved the status of an industry classic. Don’s work is mentioned in three major college advertising textbooks, and examples of his promotions are cited in the books Million Dollar Mailings (1992) and World's Greatest Direct Mail Sales Letters (1996). In a column in Advertising Age, his name was included in a short list of direct-marketing “superstars.” He has a parallel career as a writer on language and wordplay. His celebration of spoonerisms, Cruel and Unusual Puns (Dell, 1991), received rave reviews and quickly went into a second printing. His second book was Acronymania (Dell, 1993). Recently, Don retired from full-time copywriting in order to focus on other interests, including his passion for “recreational linguistics.” He is at work on a new book in that genre. He is a regular contributor to the magazine Word Ways and writes “The Language Perfectionist,” a weekly column on grammar and usage, for Early to Rise. Don is author of The Versatile Freelancer,an e-book from American Writers and Artists, Inc. (AWAI) that shows copywriters – and almost anyone – how to diversify their careers into consulting, training, critiquing, and speaking.